Adult literacy and Shakespeare

I really enjoyed All Is True, Kenneth Branagh’s new film about the aging Shakespeare. It’s visually stunning and well-performed, and explores a range of contemporary concerns with age, gender, status, creativity, loss, and love, but does so without losing sight of seventeenth century values and hierarchies.

Rather to my surprise, the film also touches on adult literacy. Partly this is one of the film-makers’ ways of emphasising the subordinate position of women, as exemplified by his daughter Susanna’s frustrated ambition to become a poet. And partly it allows the film-makers to reveal something of the relationship between William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway, played by Branagh and Judi Dench.

Women in the early seventeenth century were rarely schooled, and the film makes much of the fact that Anne – married to the celebrated poet and playwright – is illiterate. Both Susanna and her mother point out that their society expected women to bear children, not read and write. Then towards the end of the film, as Shakespeare falls ill, Anne offers to him her signature as a gift. Her daughters, it transpired, have taught her to write and read.

As with do much Anne and William’s relationship, there is very little evidence to go on, leaving us free to speculate. It’s pretty unlikely that Anne was literate, but we cannot be sure. But the absence of evidence affords the film an opportunity to explore Anne’s personality while reminding us of 17th century views of women’s value. Literacy, Freire reminds us, is power.

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